Much work left to clean up spill

Chances are, if you know someone who lives in Louisiana south of I-10, that person has some connection to commercial fishing or oil and gas.  These two industries have co-existed in a symbiotic relationship among the bayous, marshes and open waters of the Gulf of Mexico for decades.  Each is integral to the state’s economy, its culture and its way of life. 

The BP oil spill has put both under extreme stress. The federal government has closed vast expanses of the Gulf to fishing and imposed a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling, which is also having a negative impact on shallow water drilling. The government has issued no new permits since the leak started with the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig.

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A federal judge has ruled against the moratorium, but that only promises to open a chapter of litigation bound to last longer than the leak.
All this comes as coastal Louisiana was just beginning to make headway in its recovery from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The human toll, already enormous, gets worse by the day. Idle fishermen, struggling with an uncertain future, have no way to support their families. The outlook isn’t much better for petroleum workers. 

My staff recently encountered one fisherman who, like others, has plenty of time on his hands these days. When he tried to fish in violation of the ban, he got caught and ticketed by a state agent. Employment opportunities are limited for a lifelong fisherman with little education. While waiting on BP to call him for help with the cleanup, he joins others at the bars. Heavy drinking has led to violent fights with his wife. The other day, she and their children moved out of the house.

Another fisherman’s dilemma is also typical. He and his family must now choose between what to keep: their home or their boat.  BP is sending this family $5,000 a month, but that only covers boat insurance and docking fees. 

I personally know two fishermen who’ve considered taking their own lives. I know of another who actually attempted suicide. 

Tied to the fortunes of these fishermen is the seafood and tourism-based economy of New Orleans and neighboring Jefferson Parish. Indeed, with both the commercial fishing and oil and gas industries suffering, Louisiana’s economic future hangs in the balance. With oil washing up along the state’s already fragile coastline, its ecological health is equally as vulnerable.

Both BP and the Obama administration have taken criticism for perceived deficiencies in their responses to this unfolding disaster.  Fixing blame, however, is less important than fixing the problem. What matters now is the response going forward. Congress and the administration must take decisive action to address both short- and long-term needs. We will not get a second chance to get this right. 

Obviously, the pressing priority is to plug the leak and contain the spill. The federal Unified Command must continue to support BP in every way possible to achieve that objective. 

Beyond that, I strongly recommend the following action:

• Partially lift the moratorium on deepwater drilling. Let oil companies drill without tapping oil reservoirs. This compromise solution keeps the industry safely afloat while safety protocols are under review;

• Accelerate oil revenue sharing on deepwater leases issued after December 20th, 2006. The Gulf states are not scheduled to begin receiving 37.5 percent of royalties collected by the federal government until fiscal 2017. Move that date up to fiscal 2011, so states have income to pay for coastal restoration. Congress should also fund restoration of Louisiana’s marshlands by expanding the state’s share of revenues on all leases, regardless of depth;

• Raise the $75 million liability cap on economic damages oil companies can be forced to pay spill victims.  The cap, imposed in 1990 following the Exxon Valdez spill, is not adequate in today’s dollars;

• Reorganize the Minerals Management Service. A recent investigation found MMS regulators engaging in lax oversight of offshore drilling and even accepting gifts from oil and gas production companies, representing a conflict of interest and possible lapse of ethics. 

• Streamline administration of BP’s $20 billion escrow fund to make it a victim-friendly resource, unlike the Road Home fiasco created after Katrina;

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• Devise a long-term recovery plan. The House took a step in that direction last week when passing the Small Business Lending Fund Act, authorizing $30 billion to lend small businesses struggling from the recession.  The act, which now goes to the Senate, includes an amendment, co-sponsored by Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee and me, giving special consideration to spill-affected areas. 

Congress deserves credit for what is has done.  Even so, there is much work left to do. Time is pressing.  The need for collegiality and understanding are great.  After all, New Orleans life and culture are uniquely American. Louisiana’s coastline is America’s coastline. The Gulf accounts for 30 percent of the nation’s total domestic oil production. What happens to the region’s economy has direct national impact. The BP spill constitutes a truly national threat, one we must meet collectively head-on.

Rep. Cao represents Louisiana’s 2nd congressional district, which contains nearly all of the city of New Orleans.